The healthcare segment is presently the largest market for superconducting applications, led by the superconducting magnets used in MRI scanners. [BCC Research. (2012) Superconductors: Technologies and Global Markets. October 2012. www.bccresearch.com ] SuperPower continues to work with organizations to develop and refine healthcare applications to meet the demand of this growing market.
Healthcare has been using low temperature superconducting (LTS) technology as a basis for application development, with the most notable application being an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanner. A major benefit of all these devices is the higher resolution imaging and precision that is made possible with the incorporation of superconductors and superconducting coils into existing and newly developed devices. However, LTS is limited to the extent the application can be developed by its inherent drawbacks – use of liquid helium which is costly and scarce, complex cooling systems, and a low temperature range of 1.8 to 6 K and a maximum magnetic field of 20 T.
In order to make advancements in healthcare, application designers have begun to explore the many benefits of high temperature superconducting (HTS) technology. HTS is enabling advancements in healthcare through high field magnetic coils, used in many of the applications listed below. Another benefit of HTS relates to design – applications that utilize HTS technology can be smaller and lighter (especially important in space-starved institutions such as hospitals and treatment centers), are in some instances cooled with liquid nitrogen (a readily available resource, with a less complicated cooling system), and require very little energy to become operational and little to no energy once the critical temperature is achieved.
HTS will have a revolutionary impact in how patients are diagnosed, treated, and maintain their lifestyles by improving existing applications and allowing for the development of new devices that have not been possible with LTS. Organizations are just now beginning to evaluate the benefits of using HTS for these existing applications. The potential growth in the healthcare market is estimated to be within the next five to ten years.
Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Spectroscopy
A research technique that exploits the magnetic properties of certain atomic nuclei to determine the physical and chemical properties of atoms or the molecules in which they are contained. NMR can provide detailed information about the structure, dynamics, reaction state, and chemical environment of molecules. The use of HTS technology enables higher magnetic fields and higher frequency operation than LTS which results in better spectral resolution for more precise measurements.
NMR spectroscopy is used predominately in biomolecular research in the area of structural biology. NMR is often the only way to obtain high resolution, 3-dimensional information on partial or whole intrinsically unstructured proteins. The pharmaceutical industry uses this information to design better quality drugs and treatments for diseases like cancer. Nearly half of all know RNA structures have been determined through the use of NMR spectroscopy.
Proton Beam Therapy
An advanced form of radiation therapy that uses high energy particles (protons) instead of X-rays (photons) to deliver dose to a tumor. Proton therapy allows for precise distribution and control of the dose enabling clinicians to shrink tumors without affecting healthy tissue behind and adjacent to the tumor. This is especially important for tumors that are located near vital organs and in pediatric patients whose bodies are still growing.
A proton therapy device utilizes a particle accelerator made up of superconducting magnetic coils to charge the particles. Superconducting magnet coils result in high extraction efficiency, low energy consumption due to low power losses, great reliability, and an overall reduction in operating costs and maintenance.
Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices (SQUIDs)
Used to measure extremely weak signals, such as changes in the human body’s electromagnetic energy, and can detect a change in energy as much as 100 billion timers weaker than the electromagnetic energy that moves a compass needle. SQUID is based on superconducting loops employing Josephson junctions, two superconductors that are separated by a thin insulation layer allowing electrons to pass through. SQUIDs have been used for a variety of testing purposes that demand extreme sensitivity, including engineering, medical, and geological equipment. Because they measure changes in a magnetic field with such sensitivity, they do not have to come in contact with the object being tested.
- Magnetoencephalography (MEG) – measures the magnetic fields produced outside the skull by neural currents in the brain, MEGs are used to diagnose epilepsy, stroke, and mental illness, as well as to study brain function. The traditional way to monitor the brain’s electrical activity is with an electroencephalography (EEG), which requires gluing as many as 150 electrodes to the scalp. MEG measures the brain’s currents as precisely as EEG but without the electrodes (incorporates SQUIDs), making it possible to screen large numbers of patients quickly and easily. MEG is also insensitive to the conductivities of the scalp, skull, and brain, which can affect EEG measurements.
- Magnetic Source Imaging (MSI) - an imaging technique that has been used to evaluate brain function in patients with tumors, arteriovenous malformations (AVM), epilepsy, trauma, stroke, or other neurologic disorders and psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia. MSI combines functional data obtained via magnetoencephalography (MEG) with structural data obtained via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to provide a detailed picture mapping brain function onto brain structure.
- Magnetocardiography (MCG) – measures the magnetic fields produced by electrical activity in the heart using extremely sensitive devices such as the Superconducting Quantum Interference Device (SQUIDs). MCGs enable the detection of heart activity to identify sources of abnormal rhythms or arrhythmia.